Warhol: Traumatic Realism

What happens when one challenges “the great idiot savant of our time” to turn away from such upbeat/accessible themes and emotions as fame, beauty, and work and instead grapple with the harsh and affecting truth of death?  Well, you get this enlightening quote.

In an attempt to tackle Warhol from a new perspective, Hal Foster utilizes Warhol’s “Death in America” as a window into the artist’s range and as a vehicle for expanding the debate from the simplistic referential vs. simulacral readings of his work. Taking issue with Barthes, Foucault, and Baudrillard attempts to emphasize the superficiality of Pop, the loss of symbolic meaning, and the end of its subversion, Foster is more interested in the object’s “total integration” into the political economy. Similarly, instead of supporting Warholian Pop’s relationship to such themes as fashion, gay subculture, etc., Foster embraces Crowe’s punctuation of “the reality of suffering and death” as critical to a thorough understanding of the artist’s work.

But central to Foster’s argument is the degree to which Warhol’s “Death in America” series allows for a reading of Warhol through the lens of traumatic realism. Seeking to explore the impact of shocked subjectivity – compounded by repetition – Warhol hoped to examine  why repeated exposure to a gruesome event could eventually render the viewer unaffected by its severity. But instead of providing a path for mastering trauma, Foster argues that the Death in America series exemplifies Warhol’s obsessive interest in melancholy-as-object. Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies (1964) or even his Marilyns series speak to a sense of wish fulfillment that conjures up memories of death (and the public’s communal grieving experience).


In effect, Warhol’s reproductions/repetitions are not limited to solely re-producing traumatic effect but rather are entirely capable of producing it. Foster argues:

Wherein Barthes depicts punctum as “what I add to a photograph and what is nonetheless already there”, Foster makes the case that “the punctum in Warhol lies less in details than in his repetitive popping of the image.” From the indifferent passerby to the impaled victim hanging from the telephone pole, the viewer is rendered simultaneously appalled and accommodated. These conflicting reactions speak to the ways in which Warhol re-examined the relationship between depictions of death in widespread circulation and how such a relationship plays an intriguing role in the associations we bring to other non-gruesome images that are closely linked to deathly acts (see Most Wanted Men image).


Works Cited:

Hal Foster, “Death in America,” October 75 (1996).